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ROBB JOHNSON - A Reasonable History Of Impossible Demands

ROBB JOHNSON - A Reasonable History Of Impossible Demands
Free Dirt Records/PM Press DIRTCD0076

To confirmed admirers of Robb Johnson, this five-CD set surveying his long career as a songwriter and a performer will be a treasure trove. For those who have only encountered him briefly, perhaps through other people's versions of his songs, it could be a revelation.

It is easy to pigeon-hole Johnson as an identikit leftie. In fact, he has embraced so many radical causes that there is probably an archive tape somewhere of him singing at a Free The Pigeons benefit. He is unlikely to reject the label of political song-writer, for the simple reason that, for him, everything is political, but that doesn't mean that this epic collection feels like being hit over the head with several hours of radicalism.

He can be lyrical, he can explore the personal and emotional just as effectively as he can propagandise. This hefty set is also a reminder of the stylistic diversity he has married to his consistent commitment to the principles he believes in. At one end of the spectrum is what he calls English Chanson, nestling within which is a song like Magic Sam, about a conjuror in Paris, that stands out as a little masterpiece. At the other end of the scale, there is his exploration of what might be called the foothills of punk. He could never buy into the full nihilist philosophy, but he could relate to the do-it-yourself ethos and the energy.

There are songs here that carry unavoidable echoes of other people's singing; like Roy Bailey's mighty take on Boxing Day, for instance, or Maggie Holland's definitive version of Evergreen. There is also plenty of evidence of the quality of the partnership with Pip Collings, one which he broke up in the end partly because he did not want to be confined by the punters' understandable wish to hear again the songs on which her stunning voice figures most prominently.

Johnson is prolific in the extreme, and the old stuff sometimes has to make way for the new and the topical. On a canvas as broad as this one, though, there is room for both. Not only are there five CDs, they all get up towards the 80 minute mark. Throw in a 50-page booklet – which has much to say about the craft of song-writing, amongst other things – and this is an exceptionally generous package, in every respect.

Robb Johnson might remain a well-kept secret to the musical mainstream. He does not have the profile of a Billy Bragg, for instance, although he shares the same gift for plaiting the personal with the political. The message of A Reasonable History Of Impossible Demands – great title, by the way – is that his body of work can stand alongside anyone's.

Dave Hadfield

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This album was reviewed in Issue 114 of The Living Tradition magazine.